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Sunday, November 23, 2008

“The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman (Reviewed by Fábio Fernandes)

Order “The Graveyard BookHERE (US) + HERE (UK) + HERE (Limited)

Where do ideas come from? That is the second most asked question in Literature (the first one being, naturally, what is science fiction after all?). There is no single, definite, mathematic answer to that question. Tolstoy witnessed a woman jump in front of a train, and this suicide led him to write Anna Karenina; Ian Fleming wrote James Bond partly based in his experience for the British secret service during World War II, but chose the name of his agent 007 in a textbook on bird watching.

Sometimes simple, daily things can do the trick fairly well. Such is the case in Neil Gaiman’sThe Graveyard Book”. One day, Gaiman was watching his son Michael strolling around in his tricyle in a cemetery near their home—and suddenly he thought, what if Mowgli (The Jungle Book) hadn’t been raised in a jungle in India, but in a cemetery in England?

That was the premise behind “The Graveyard Book”. As simple as that.

But things are never that simple with Neil Gaiman. “It just took me twenty-something years to write it.” The wait, however, was worth it.

“There as a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife,” the story begins. The hand belongs to an assassin, hired to murder an entire family. And that’s what he does—except for the youngest son, a toddler who manages to escape from his cradle and crawl all the way to a cemetery nearby. There, he is welcomed (sort of) by the ghosts of the deceased (most of them more than two centuries old, and one or two far older than that). The spirit of his mother, still confused, begs to the ghosts there to take care of her son, and they feel obliged to do so.

Time passes, and the young boy (now appropriately named Nobody Owens—the last name due to the family who raises him, an old married couple of dead humble people from the 18th Century) becomes an expert on the cemetery, becoming familiar with every nook and cranny and every grave, even the lost ones including an old pre-historic tomb inside a hill. During almost all of his exploits and little adventures, he is being watched by Silas, his guardian, a being who is neither living nor dead, and the only one besides Nobody who can leave the space of the graveyard.

Nobody receives all the education ancient ghosts can give him—grammar and math (both old style, which doesn’t really help him), but also some very cool phantom-like tricks including Fading, Sliding and Dreamwalking. In the beginning of his education, he becomes friends with another living person, a girl his age called Scarlett Amber Perkins, and that encounter makes him very happy.

That is the event that will make him more adventurous, more willing to explore what’s beyond the cemetery. From then on he will make incursions to the city—but dangerous incursions at that, because he will attract the attention of Jack, the murderer of his family. Ultimately, Nobody will learn the truth behind who he is and what Jack wanted with him and his parents…

This is not Harry Potter at all. But then, I didn’t have to tell you that did I? Not if you already know Gaiman’s work from Sandman to Coraline, but also encompassing Stardust, Interworld, Fragile Things, and MirrorMask. “The Graveyard Book” is not about the dead; ultimately it is about the living, about life and what you choose to do with it. Nobody Owens learns about the basic things of life and death (after living many thrilling, bloodcurdling adventures, both in town and in other worlds), and undergoes a rite of passage that will make a man out of him. It’s not a hymn to life, but a bittersweet ballad. And it’s a good book…

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